WASHINGTON – The Pentagon would be permitted to add thousands of ground troops under a House bill, reflecting lawmakers' long-standing concerns that U.S. forces must be increased, particularly during wartime.
The provision is part of a massive measure the House Armed Services Committee approved late Wednesday on a 60-1 vote. The bill sets Defense Department policy and spending levels of $512.9 billion for the military for next year, including $50 billion to cover the first portion of next year's costs for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Just six months before voters elect a new Congress, lawmakers shaped the bill to address concerns arising from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, including plans for more generous recruitment incentives, pay raises and combatting roadside bombs. Actual money for specific programs is provided in separate, later legislation.
It is likely senators will reflect similar priorities when the Senate Armed Services Committee passes its version of the bill by Friday, given a desire across Capitol Hill to be perceived as supporting troops and their families during wartime — particularly in an election year.
Overall, the House bill "reflects our committee's strong and continuing support for the brave men and women of the United States armed services," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the committee's chairman.
Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the lead Democrat on the House committee, said the bill addresses two priorities — "demands of the present and preparations that must be made to ensure we continue to have the best prepared, trained and equipped force in the world."
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress has approved $368 billion for wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and global efforts against terrorism, including defense, foreign aid and veterans' costs, according to the Congressional Research Service, the research arm for lawmakers.
The bill plans increased spending beyond the administration's request for operations, training and maintenance, while lowering the money the Pentagon can spend on some major weapons systems still being developed, such as the Future Combat Systems, the Army's key weapons program.
Also, the House bill continues the committee's push to encourage the Pentagon to expand the number of U.S. military ground forces.
In recent weeks, several retired generals have stepped forward to argue that the planning for the war in Iraq — including troop levels — was not sufficient. And, in recent interviews, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said he told Rumsfeld and Bush that he was worried that U.S. did not have enough troops to complete the mission.
As in previous years, the bill permits the Army to increase the number of active-duty soldiers by 30,000 — or 6 percent beyond what President Bush requested — to a maximum target of 512,400. It also requires the Army to maintain an active-duty force of at least 504,400, roughly 2,000 more soldiers than the current level.
Additionally, the bill allows the Marine Corps to add 5,000 troops — or 3 percent more than Bush sought — to reach a force of 180,000 Marines.
The bill also authorizes the Army National Guard to have 350,000 troops, the same number allowed last year, and increases the number of Army National Guard full-time support personnel by nearly 2,300.
With recruitment and retention of soldiers a concern of lawmakers while the country is at war, the House bill would institute higher incentives to help keep the ranks filled.
It would authorize an additional $100 million for Army recruiting and retention bonuses; $100 million for the Army Reserve to fund Army-wide basic officer courses; and $59 million for Air National Guard bonuses.
To protect U.S. troops in Iraq, the bill plans $209.7 million for devices to prevent roadside bomb explosions in Iraq and for aircraft to patrol above roads to look for the bombs, a leading killer of U.S. troops in Iraq.
The House bill also calls for $300 million to fund a 2.7 percent military pay raise. The raise would be 0.5 percentage points more than what the president proposed.
Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., cast the only vote against the bill.